Italian Embassy bats off MP’s claim of oil and gas corruption
BEIRUT: The Italian ambassador “confirmed” an Italian company previously qualified to bid for oil exploration licenses had no knowledge of claims they were asked for bribes by Lebanese officials, Nicolas Tueni, the minister of state for combating corruption, said Sunday.
The envoy’s remark came during a Friday meeting between Tueni and Italian Ambassador to Lebanon Massimo Marotti following a twoday parliamentary session during which MPs questioned the Cabinet on government progress.
Allegations of graft in connection to the bidding process for oil exploration licenses surfaced during the assembly. MP Boutros Harb alleged that politicians had demanded millions of dollars from Italian oil giant Eni SpA if any potential bid for licenses were to be successful.
“The ambassador confirmed to us that the participating Italian company [Eni] has no knowledge pertaining to statements on the matter,” a statement from Tueni’s office read. “This is an established Italian company that is committed to [adhering to] the applied laws, transparency treaties and combatting corruption.”
The ambassador and the minister discussed “allegations by … MP Boutros Harb that some politicians have asked for bribes to facilitate obtaining the [oil] contracts,” the statement added.
In 2013, Eni was approved to bid for future oil and gas contracts once these open up. The government relaunched the bidding process in February this year; licenses are due to be awarded later this year.
However, during the Parliamentary session, Harb claimed that Eni had withdrawn its application following demands from officials for kickbacks and bribes.
“[Eni], one of the biggest oil exploration companies … withdrew from participating in the licensing round in Lebanon after Lebanese officials in the Energy Ministry asked it to pay hundreds of millions of dollars, up to 10 percent of its profit, in order to grant it [oil] exploration and production licenses,” Harb told Parliament.
Last February, the Financial Times reported that Eni’s current CEO Claudio Descalzi and former chief executive Paolo Scaroni were charged by Italian prosecutors with international corruption in connection with a $1.3 billion oil exploration license in Nigeria. The company denied the charges at the time.
Despite his statements in Parliament, Harb downplayed his claims when talking to The Daily Star Sunday. “I am not accusing anyone or saying that this actually happened,” Harb said. “I am saying that this was circulated by some media outlets and there should be a serious investigation into it so we can see if it is happening or not. The investigation has to include testimony from the concerned [Lebanese] officials.”
The “real danger,” Harb claimed, stems from the apparent questionable history of a number of companies that he said had submitted applications.
“Some of these companies have a history of fraudulent transactions and theft across the world,” he alleged. “Others are only shell companies, or are companies that were only established in the weeks leading up to the start of the tender period. There has to be an investigation, and the people behind these companies must be revealed and subject to public [scrutiny].”
Harb declined to name any of the specific companies.
Although Lebanon has no confirmed offshore oil and gas reserves, indicators point to a high likelihood of some reserves.